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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The value of an astronaut

A Slashdot post considers the value of an astronaut’s life:

…if you’re going to ‘give up four billion dollars to avoid a one in seven chance of killing an astronaut, you’re basically saying an astronaut’s life is worth twenty-eight billion dollars.’ He wrote about the same subject earlier this year for Reason magazine, saying, ‘Keeping astronauts safe merits significant expenditure. But how much? There is a potentially unlimited set of testing procedures, precursor missions, technological improvements, and other protective measures that could be implemented before allowing human beings to once again try flying to other worlds. Were we to adopt all of them, we would wind up with a human spaceflight program of infinite cost and zero accomplishment.

The very first comment:

Market economy to the rescue: As long as the kind of people you need keep queuing up to become astronauts, reduce costs. They are the ones whose asses are on the line, so if they’re OK with it, do it.

This makes sense to me. I wonder how the private space industry will handle this issue. Of course, there will be public relations and politics to consider.

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14 comments to The value of an astronaut

  • The Pedant-General

    “Of course, there will be public relations and politics to consider.”

    And that has to be the key: this isn’t actually about the life of the astronaut: it’s the failure of a space mission all over the rolling news for weeks with all the prestige/face loss that that entails for the country, not the astronaut and his/her family.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    The only way to have 100% safe space travel- would be to ban it! No fatalities then! Wait until Health and Safety get onto this!!!

  • PG: Yes, we saw that in the USSR. Typically, often they would not announce that a space mission was taking place until the cosmonauts were safely in orbit. That way if they were killed on launch, we would never find out about it. They managed to demonstrate that the value of a cosmonaut’s life was actually not very high to them, but the embarrassment factor of losing one was in fact very high. (Of course, I think in the long term the reputational damage that came from people noticing that they were doing that was worse, but they were not good at estimation of such things.

    Of course, the real question for would be astronauts is whether the value of the positives of being an astronaut (going into space, walking on Mars, being able to say “I am an astronaut” when girls ask you what you do) are greater than the value of the negative possibility of dying in a space accident. As long as qualified people can be found who consider that the net value is positive, there is no problem. It should, of course, be for the applicants to decide this. Brief them on the dangers, by all means. But that is about all that should be necessary. (But of course, if the state is running the space program, it may not be able to work like this. Once again, the most important thing is to make sure that the state does not insist on absurd rules when someone else is doing it).

  • Ian Bennett

    They are the ones whose asses are on the line, so if they’re OK with it, do it.

    One of my favourite quotes comes to mind:

    To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.

  • Lang Spoon

    An excellent quote Ian Bennett, but who said it?

  • The statistical value of an American life is in the $5 million to $8 million range.

    Spending more than that to reduce the possibility of the death of a worker is a waste of money.

  • MakajazMonkee

    “being able to say “I am an astronaut” when girls ask you what you do”

    The way things seem to be progressing with Musk and co, I get the feeling in half a century’s time that might be a crap thing, kinda like saying you work on an oil rig.

  • RRS

    How much is money worth?

    How many lives should we expend to get some specific amount of money?

    Is that the measure of the value of life?

    Over the history of Western Civilization has the value assigned to life (and living) increased?

    Has the value of all the kinds of money decreased over that same time?


  • Dale Amon

    The value of a spaceship test-pilotŠ› life is the value that individual places on it. He or she does a trade off between the possibility of death and the possibility of not getting into space. For most who surround me, the negative value of not getting into space outweighs the risk to such an extent that the decision is a no-brainer. Many (those who have it) would in fact pay large sums of money to take that risk at a far, far high level of risk than NASA flight.

    This is one of the institutional reasons why NASA has to push everything into the private sector. NASA cannot kill astronauts and survive, but to open a frontier you must pay the butchers bill. Only in the private sector can individuals make they own choice and go off to face death or glory or unique experience or fame and fortune and historical immortality.

  • Current

    An important part of the purpose of space missions is to prove the viability of the technology. It’s to prove that if space travel were scaled up to millions of trips per year that it would be practical.

    The space industry, private or state, must show that the risks can be minimized or the whole venture is irrelevant in the long term.

  • Dale Amon

    Eventually some parts of it will be relatively safe. I am quite sure that the rides into suborbital space will rapidly become very safe. But if you think the real opening of the frontier is going to be ‘safe’, then you had best stay at home because you are not cut out to be a pioneer.

  • At the moment it’s probably worth the money to try and keep them alive (for all the reasons stated above), but in the future when as many people commute to the moon as today commute into the Square Mile then it probably won’t matter as much if a few hundred get killed here and there. The costs associated with safety measures will fall too as technology improves.

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    Trevor Smith (writing as Adam Hall, The 9th Directive):

    Pioneering is the business of finding new and unexpected ways of dieing.